A Rule of Life
Those living the monastic life, or under monastic discipline, have traditionally been bound by Rules; the best known Rule is the Rule of Saint Benedict, although there are many others, some of them applied in contemporary practice, some of them essentially defunct.
Hermits have tended to follow more idiosyncratic and individualistic Rules, sometimes written and formalised, sometimes not. Contemporary Hermits in the Roman Catholic tradition, if they live under the provisions of Canon 603 of the Code of Canon Law, are expected to develop and live according to a “Plan of Life” approved by the Bishop by whom they are consecrated. Considerable interesting discussion about such “Plans of Life” can be found on the blog of Sister Laurel O’Neal, a Diocesan Hermit: see http://notesfromstillsong.blogspot.com.au/search/label/Plan%20or%20Rule%20of%20Life
The revival of interest in and the practice of the eremitical life has seen a renewed interest in the development of Rules of Life. This has extended to considering such Rules for individual Christians, and for those who follow the emerging pattern of “New Monasticism”, “Neomonasticism”, or “Lay Monasticism”: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Monasticism
“Benedict begins his Rule with the words, “Listen carefully, my child…” So we too begin the process of writing our Rule of Life by listening. We pay attention to the present shape of our lives, recognizing that we each have different temperaments, needs and gifts. We do this work individually and in community with one another.
Sister Joan Chittester reminds us, “… the ability to listen to another, to sit silently in the presence of God, to give sober heed, and to ponder is the nucleus of Benedictine spirituality. It may, in fact, be what is most missing in a century saturated with information but short on Gospel reflection. The Word we seek is speaking in the silence within us.”
Consider your Rule of Life as a trellis upon which you plant, water, and cultivate your relationship with God, with your deepest self and with one another. Remember, your Rule of Life is for your support and growth.”
“A Rule then is a means whereby, under God, we take responsibility for the pattern of our spiritual lives. It is a ‘measure’ rather than a ‘law’. The word ‘rule’ has bad connotations for many, implying restrictions, limitations and legalistic attitudes. But a Rule is essentially about freedom. It helps us to stay centred, bringing perspective and clarity to the way of life to which God has called us. The word derives from the Latin ‘regula’ which means ‘rhythm, regularity of pattern, a recognisable standard’ for the conduct of life. Esther De Waal has pointed out that ‘regula’ ‘is a feminine noun which carried gentle connotations’ rather than the harsh negatives that we often associate with the phrase ‘rules and regulations’ today. We do not want to be legalistic. A Rule is an orderly way of existence but we embrace it as a way of life not as keeping a list of rules. It is a means to an end – and the end is that we might seek God with authenticity and live more effectively for Him.”
“A Rule of Life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and
direction for growth in holiness. A Rule establishes a rhythm for life in which is helpful for
being formed by the Spirit, a rhythm that reflects a love for God and respect for how he has made us. The disciplines which we build into our rhythm of life help us to shed the “old self” and allow our “new self” in Christ to be formed. Spiritual disciplines are means of grace by which God can nourish us. Ultimately a Rule should help you to love God more, so if it becomes a legalistic way of earning points with God or impressing others, it should be scrapped. If the traditional, ancient term “rule” concerns you because it sounds legalistic, think of “rule” as a “rhythm of life” or as a “Curriculum in Christlikeness” (Dallas Willard), or as a “Game Plan for Morphing” (John Ortberg).
In order to be life-giving, a Rule must be realistic! It is not an ideal toward which you are
striving to soar. Instead, your initial Rule should be a minimum standard for your life that you do not want to drop below. It’s a realistic level of engaging in the spiritual disciplines for which you can honestly and truly be held accountable.
Rules will vary widely, depending on the character and life situation of a person. Not only will people choose different disciplines but how the disciplines are practiced will also vary.
Although every believer should pray, for example, the frequency or length or times or kind of prayer will differ.
Thomas à Kempis writes, “All cannot use the same kind of spiritual exercises, but one suits this person, and another that. Different devotions are suited also to the seasons [of life]….”
“Instructions for Developing A Personal Rule of Life” – These instructions quote, paraphrase, and adapt Marjorie Thompson, “Soul Feast”, chap. 9, and Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook”, pp. 35-39.
“It was 480 C. E. and the old structures of the Roman empire were already crumbling. This was to be one of the great pivot points of history. Into this world in transition, where those seeking to be most fully devoted to God escaped empire by fleeing to the desert as hermits or gathered around a guru, was born Benedict of Nursia. Benedict’s Rule, a model of Christian discipleship that was community-centered, has endured as a living text for more than 1500 years, making it, according to some, the most influential text on Western society after the Bible. Even more impressively, Benedictines are widely credited with having saved Western civilization from the ravages of the barbarian invasions.
While Benedictine history is unquestionably impressive, what is surprising is the contemporary revival of interest in the insights this storied tradition has to offer those seeking to craft lives of discipleship in today’s world. The decades since Vatican II have seen a marked increase in the number of Oblates and associates—those with formal ties to monastic communities who apply the Rule of Benedict to married or single life outside the monastery.
Additionally, a loose movement of Christian intentional communities, dubbing itself “the new monasticism” has purposefully sought to draw upon the wisdom of the Benedictine tradition to enrich its own practice. Neomonastics have published a handful of titles and many others have added to those which draw upon Benedict’s Rule to offer the Christian mainstream “Monk Habits for Everyday People” and tips on “How to Be Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job”. In continuity with these developments, this essay considers three relevant applications of Benedictine insight for those seeking to forge for themselves a way of life following Jesus in the contemporary Western context.
Benedictinism distinguished itself in Benedict’s day by the centrality of community in its Rule. Benedict begins his Rule by identifying the four different types of monks, and asserting that Cenobites—those who “are based in a monastery and fulfil their service of the Lord under a rule and an abbot or abbess”—are “the strongest kind.” He contrasts Cenobite practice to the relational isolation of the hermitic Anchorites, the wandering pairs of Sarabites and the vagabond individual Gyrovagues, which he considers the worst of the bunch. In these comparisons, two of Benedict’s central values emerge: relational and geographical stability.
Contemporary Western society is characterized by both a high degree of mobility and a deep individualism, both of which, many have argued, inhibit churches efforts to form Christians and embody the gospel. These two realities often function in tandem, individualistic thinking driving decisions to repeatedly uproot oneself or family, and a lifetime of relocation reinforcing an I’m-on-my-own mindset. By contrast, the Benedictine vow of stability, which is a commitment first to a set of relationships and second to a place, intends to provide an adequate “environment for conversion of life”. Indeed, for the “Benedictine, life in community is the great human asceticism.”
How might the wisdom of Benedict’s stability be applied today? Neomonastics provide the most obvious example, making yearly renewals of commitment to their shared-residence fellowships, which are themselves deeply local. But is there any meaningful ways that Christians could glean Benedict’s wisdom without converting to neomonasticism? I believe so. Two approaches can be imagined, with innumerable expressions. First, one might resolve to remain in one place, one city or even one residence. While many will inevitably come and go, others will spend long years and this can approximate relational stability. Moving to be nearer to family—those most enduring of relationships—can be seen in this light. The geographically stable might also seek lifetime employment in a single company, lifetime membership in a single church, even lifetime patronage at a single grocer or coffeehouse, all of which would result in increased stability in relationships. A second contemporary approach to stability could take shape if a collection of friends decided that they wanted to spend their lives together. The expression of this relational stability could be as thin as a commitment to gather yearly for a weekend getaway, or as thick as a vow to always live in the same neighborhood, and make any moves en masse. It should be noted that steps toward either relational or geographical stability would increasingly leave one out of step with the mainstream as job offers that others deem too-good-to-refuse are passed up and the tug of white flight is resisted.
A second dimension of Benedict’s insight for today lies in what Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister, calls “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily”. According to her, “Benedictine spirituality brings depth and focus to dailiness.” Benedict considers his a “little” rather than heroic Rule, and its daily routine is served up with large helpings of work and relationships—exactly the stuff of contemporary life for average men and women. Rather than considering people an obstacle to contemplation or work a distraction from prayer, Benedict’s rule is founded on the “firm conviction” that “God is present everywhere.”
Chittister proposes the relevance of Benedict’s doctrine of God’s omnipresence: We have to learn to take the raw materials of our lives and turn them into the stuff of sanctity. We can’t wait for the perfect person or the perfect environment to call us to spiritual maturity. The people in our lives are the people who will test our virtues, our values, and our depth.
Benedict’s wisdom shatters the still-pervasive belief in a sacred-secular divide. God, assert Benedictines, is just as present at your desk as at the cathedral, just as present at your dinner table as at the Lord’s Table. It is for this reason that Chittister considers “sight” one of the two basic gifts of Benedictism for today. Those who seek to apply Benedict’s wisdom to their contemporary lives are challenged to discover that “…this dull and tiring day is holy and its simple labors are the stuff of God’s saving presence for me now.”
While I agree wholeheartedly with Benedict’s wisdom here, I am concerned that a fair number of contemporary people make of it a license for lack of discipline. Many seemingly believe that since God is everywhere, work is holy and people are ambassadors of the divine, there is little need for rest, solitude, prayer or scripture. This brings us to Benedict’s third critical contribution for today. It should be obvious, but it is oddly overlooked, how central prayer and scripture are to Benedictine spirituality. Indeed, Benedict calls for four dedicated hours of prayer and three hours of reading and reflection daily. I agree with Chittister’s assessment: “We not be able to keep that particular schedule, you and I, but we must find a life rhythm that somehow satisfies…those elements.”
In Benedictinism, prayer and scripture are comingled. Benedictine prayer is dominated by language from the Psalms and Scriptures, which is “intended to immerse the monk in a world where God’s presence is felt and where God’s goodness is praised.” Indeed, for Benedictines, belief and awareness of God’s presence everywhere and at all times is dependent upon a set aside time and space for immersion in this reality. This presence according to Chittister, importantly, “demands a total response.” The features of Benedictine prayer identified by Chittister have pointed relevance. Benedictine prayer’s regularity makes a claim on the true purpose of time, and confounds modern self-importance. Its universality anchors it in the needs of the entire universe, rather than those of the of the praying individual, making it an antidote to narcissism. Its reflectivness offers the possibility of integrating the fragmented pieces of our lives. Benedictine prayer is converting, serving as a practice that calls for a change of mind—and an opening to the cries of those in need. Finally, prayer in the Benedictine tradition is communal, challenging rampant individualism and binding the praying community together.
The primary Benedictine practice of engaging scripture is lectio divina, which is being rediscovered widely. In lectio divina, scripture is approached meditatively and reverently and the intention of the reading is affective rather than cognitive. Through quiet repetition, “the text serves as a mirror that brings inner realities to consciousness” and this “heightened awareness exposes our need for divine help and readily leads to prayer.”
Applying the centrality of disciplined regimens and psychologically astute practices of prayer and scripture to contemporary life need not be complicated, though it will not be easy. Time must be set aside. Many, even Protestants, are experimenting with praying the divine hours, as fresh titles attest. Evangelicals have long promoted “daily quiet times” of morning reading and prayer. While this practice, as I have learned firsthand, is often used inappropriately as a gauge of spiritual health and maturity, it no less has much to commend it. Whether they elect to pray the hours or keep a quiet time, or follow another disciplined pattern of prayer and scripture, contemporary disciples who wish to integrate the wisdom of Benedictine spirituality into their lives will have to set aside dedicated time for these central practices. There is simply no way to be in any meaningful sense “monastic” without prioritizing these basic Christian practices.
The Benedictine wisdom we have surveyed is both timeless and timely. Relationships have always been and will always be a primary means of grace, and the Benedictine practice of stability capitalizes on this fact—something of particular relevance to our hyper-mobile society. Most people must spend the lion’s share of their lives engaged in the mundane tasks of daily life—working, eating, conversing—and Benedict challenges us to discover God’s presence even here, even in the 21st century. Scripture and prayer are among the most fundamental practices of Christian tradition and Benedict has invited believers for 1500 years to set aside time for these—and his invitation extends to today’s world in which these increasingly seem overly pious and passé. May Benedictine wisdom find expression today in Christians and churches who exercise these practices and therein find the God Benedict knew to be everywhere.”
Stephen A. Macchia “Crafting a Rule of Life. An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way” [InterVarsity Press, 2012] see also: http://ruleoflife.com/
Eugene L. Romano “A Way of Desert Spirituality: The Plan of Life of the Hermits of Bethlehem, Chester, New Jersey” [Alba House; Revised edition, 1998]
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun “Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us” [IVP Books, 2005]
Richard J. Foster “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth” [HarperSanFrancisco; 3rd edition, 2002]
Richard J. Foster “Richard J. Foster’s Study Guide for “Celebration of Discipline”” [HarperOne, 1983]
Richard J. Foster “Celebrating the Disciplines: A Journal Workbook to Accompany “Celebration of Discipline”” [HarperOne, 1992]
Dennis Okholm and Kathleen Norris “Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants” [Brazos Press, 2007]: “In their zeal for reform, early Protestant leaders tended to throw out Saint Benedict with the holy water. That is a mistake, writes Dennis Okholm, in “Monk Habits for Everyday People”. While on retreat in a Benedictine abbey, the author, a professor who was raised as a Pentecostal and a Baptist, observed how the meditative and ordered life of a monk lifted Jesus’ teachings off the printed page and put them into daily practice. Vital aspects of devotion, humility, obedience, hospitality, and evangelism took on new clarity and meaning. Paralleling that experience, Okholm guides the reader on a focused and instructive journey that can revitalize the devotional life of any Christian who wants to slow down and dig deeper.”
Brother Benet Tvedten “How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job: An Invitation to Oblate Life (Voices from the Monastery)” [Paraclete Press, 2006]: “Dorothy Day was an oblate while she lived in the heart of New York City. So was the French poet, Paul Claudel. Kathleen Norris is an oblate, and so was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in Europe to earn a Ph.D. What connects them all? There are at least ten thousand oblates in the United States today (no one knows for sure how many), and each of them is connected in meaningful ways to a monastery or abbey. Most oblates are ordinary lay people from various Christian traditions. They are linked together by common appreciation for the Rule of St. Benedict. Originally written for monks, the principles in the Rule may be applied by everyone else—and in today’s hectic, changing world, being an oblate offers a rich spiritual connection to the stability and wisdom of monastic life. This essential guide explains how people who live and work in “the world” are still invited to balance work with prayer, cultivate interdependence with others, practice hospitality, and otherwise practice their spirituality like monks.”
Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today” [HarperOne; Reprint edition, 2009]: “At the time this book was written Joan Chittister had lived the Benedictine Rule in a monastic community for more than 30 years. She has distilled the wisdom of Benedictine spirituality which has great relevance to hard times: “It teaches people to see the world as good, their needs as legitimate, and human support as necessary. Benedictine spirituality doesn’t call for either great works or great denial. It simply calls for connectedness. It shows us how to connect with God, with others, and with our innermost selves.””
Jane Tomaine “St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living” [Morehouse Publishing, 2005]: “When St. Benedict formed his first small community of monks at Monte Cassino on the hilltop, Italy–and much of Europe–was ravaged by war. The Roman Empire was breaking apart, and politics, cultural life, and even the Church, were all in disarray. In the midst of these tumultuous times, Benedict offered his followers a “little rule,” a guide about the size of a checkbook, that showed his monks the way to peace as they learned to prefer Christ above all things.Though it was written nearly 1500 years ago, the Rule of Benedict still offers the practical tools for living a Christ-centered today. Here in St. Benedict’s Toolbox, readers will find a primer on how to use these tools in their own tumultuous lives. Each chapter examines one aspect of the Rule, from ways of praying to ways of embracing humility, and offers suggestions for prayer, reflection, journaling, and action. As they learn to use Benedict’s tools, readers will discover the power–and the timeliness–of this ancient way of life.”